The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima

First – a confession. I’ve been away writing my novel for November. Only I didn’t get it finished. I abandoned it with a week to go, 20,000 words from completion. I am going back to it. Eventually.

In the meantime, I’ve got to catch up on writing about my reading. This one is book 3 of 4 in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility cycle. I didn’t realise this when I bought it, but decided to read it anyway. So I was immediately at a further disadvantage than when I read the first book. In between the end of Spring Snow and the start of The Temple of Dawn, Honda has completed his training as a lawyer and had a career as a judge, from which he has now retired. He’s also got married to someone.

During the middle book, I’m not sure which one it is, Honda befriended or adjudicated on another lost young soul who I think ended up committing suicide in prison. There are several references to this, but not knowing anything about the story, I didn’t understand them.

Anyway, Honda at the start of The Temple of Dawn is in Bangkok on business – he’s involved with some long-running case and it requires him to go to Thailand for a jolly. He visits the eponymous temple, and thinks a bit about reincarnation. It’s clear to him that the boy in the second book (can’t remember his name) is a reincarnation of the boy from the first book (can’t remember his name). But he doesn’t seem to have spent any time thinking about reincarnation before, what with his logical legal training and all that. So he finds out a lot about it. A lot. It doesn’t help much that the entire history of Buddhism involves a lot of Indian words and names, but it’s pretty dull reading. And historical Buddhists seem to have spent a similar amount of time arguing about pointless details as historical Christians. And probably all religious types. It doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t.

Anyway, also in Bangkok is a Thai princess who’s six years old, and claims to be Japanese really. Because Honda knew the Thai princes from their visit to Japan in Spring Snow, he is granted an audience with her. She is clearly the reincarnation of the two boys from the first two books. Excellent stuff.

So then the second world war happens, and Honda is sad. Then he becomes immensely wealthy because the Americans have changed the law and the case he’s been working on finishes and so he decides to build a house. And there’s a bit of allegory, with a wealthy Japanese woman and her (strong, virile) American boyfriend and a number of other characters which is very enjoyable. And then Honda starts watching people having sex in bushes. And… wait – what? Why? Anyway, it’s important because he builds a special hole in the wall of his new study so that he can spy on people having sex in his guest bedroom.

At some stage the Thai princess comes to Japan, having grown a preposterous pair of breasts. Honda builds a swimming pool in the hope of inviting her to go skinny dipping. He’s so fumingly in lust with her, it’s by far the best bit of the book. And he invites her to stay one night with a rather “aggressive” young man; she rejects his advances and runs off to the neighbours. Somehow, Honda misses this. Then Honda has some more parties and it turns out she’s a lesbian who falls in love with a poetess.

And then she goes back to Thailand and drops dead instantly. Or something.

Clearly, the characters in these books are not supposed to even vaguely resemble genuine people, except accidentally. The whole watching people having sex thing is deeply odd. Anyway, from what I’ve figured out, Honda is the observer and the continually reincarnating young men/women are the spirit of Japan going through a turbulent century. Other characters represent the various aspects of Japanese society – artistic, aristocracy, the mercantile class, the American occupiers, etc.

Reading it like that is very interesting, although obviously I might be some distance off with my characterisations. But reading it as an actual story involving people interacting one-on-one is very disappointing. I think if you’re going to use this trick, it has to work on both levels. I’ll definitely read the other half of the cycle at some stage, but it will be as a Japanese history, trying to ignore the characters as much as possible.

See also:

Spring Snow – obviously.

Cryptonomicon – also deals with the second world war in Japan and the rebuilding (among many, many other things), although from an American perspective.

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1 thought on “The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima”

  1. I quite agree with this account of the Temple of Dawn. I also skipped the second book in the tetralogy without knowing, though at first a disappointment in itself, I came to the conclusion that it may not be essential.

    The chapters on Buddhism are as dry as you describe, and I too was in excruciating pain digesting them. This whole book is Mishima musing over various bits and pieces he’s interested in: Reincarnation, asexuality, voyeurism, nihilism. A real insight into the mind of man that emerged at such a poignant moment in Japanese history, a time when Japan finally embraced the world, or more accurately, when the world devoured Japan.

    Such perversions were and are just as taboo in Western culture then and now, as you would imagine them to be in Japan. And yet, the Western world is far more conservative when it comes to sex and death. I must say I find him quite liberating in the sense that he bridges taboos in both cultures by being entirely depraved in one and accepted in another.

    I can quite understand your reluctance to persevere with the series, and I have also stalled for the time being. However, for a flash of exotic excitement that doesn’t require stamina, I would urge you to read one of his short novels, which are independent from this body, and pleasingly, no less brutal.

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